Religious healthcare workers have a professional obligation to follow their conscience
Religion & Liberty Online

Religious healthcare workers have a professional obligation to follow their conscience

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For centuries, doctors subscribed to the Hippocratic Oath, a vow that includes admonitions against abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. This oath formed the core of Western medical ethics and provided a boundary marker for a physician’s conscience by outlining an ethic of neighbor love (Cf Rom 13:8-10).

But for decades the Hippocratic ideal and the Christians concept of neighbor love have been eroded in the medical field by unethical bioethicists. So it’s not surprising that we now find some bioethicists who would prefer to restrict the conscience of doctors in a more politically correct manner.

Recently, a “consensus statement” signed by prominent bioethicists from around the world was published by Oxford University. The statement proposes “guidelines for the regulation of conscientious objection” which would force doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals to participate in abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and other actions that violate their consciences or religious beliefs or suffer the consequences:

7. Healthcare practitioners who are exempted from performing certain medical procedures on conscientious grounds should be required to compensate society and the health system for their failure to fulfil their professional obligations by providing public-benefitting services.

8. Medical students should not be exempted from learning how to perform basic medical procedures they consider to be morally wrong. Even if they become conscientious objectors, they will still be required to perform the procedure to which they object in emergency situations or when referral is not possible or poses too great a burden on patients or on the healthcare system.


10. Healthcare practitioners should also be educated to reflect on the influence of cognitive bias in their objections.

While it’s tempting to dismiss the statement as expressing the stereotypical liberal bias of academia, the threat posed by this attitude is real and must be taken seriously. “Make no mistake, these bioethicists and many in the medical establishment want to drive orthodox Christian and other faith believers, along with pro-lifers, out of the medical professions,” says Wesley J. Smith. “The question of medical conscience–as a subset of religious liberty–is going to be one of the most contentious issues facing society in the next decade.”

The best rebuttal to the statement I’ve found comes from philosopher Brandon Watson, who points out the incoherence in claiming that professional obligations are completely distinct from obligations of conscience—or even obligations as a citizen:

A citizen’s primary obligation is to uphold the good of society; so, one might say, when matters important to society are involved, one’s obligations as a citizen should normally take priority over one’s moral and religious views. But one’s obligations as citizen include maintaining a society in which people can, to the extent possible, fulfill their moral and religious obligations as best they can. Someone consistently sacrificing their conscience to civic obligation is not actually acting as a good citizen.


No civic obligation can take priority over morality itself, so if a civic obligation conflicts with your best assessment of what is morally obligatory, you have a moral obligation to violate the civic obligation, not a moral obligation to violate the moral obligation. And our civic responsibilities are not generic; our obligations are not merely those of citizens considered generically but conscientious citizens, Catholic citizens, Jewish citizens, citizens participating in particular communities. So the analogue of (1) doesn’t seem to make much sense for civic obligations — but many civic obligations are far more serious and important, as obligations, than many and probably most professional obligations.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).